of translucent priests and poets

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I sometimes think about Robert Bresson’s 1951 film Diary of a Country Priest.

Here’s a good essay:

Frédéric Bonnaud at The Criterion Collection

 

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As the essay tells, the priest arrives in his new parish, and the people are variously hostile and indifferent to him. He is practically invisible, quite ineffectual. Superfluous. Owing to both the parishioners’ this-worldly preferences and to his own wasting illness, the priest is a pale, almost translucent being. Nonetheless, he doggedly pursues a mission of spiritual presence and information. At the same time, he conducts a private mission of questioning his own faith. Even as he tries to insert himself into the social milieu of the parish, he also abstracts himself into a ghostly introspection. A metaphysical pallor is on his brow, a searching fever in his eyes.

The predicament of this priest is similar to the situation of a poet.

 

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A poet wishes to insinuate himself or herself into the reading heads of others. Having gathered intuitions about the undiscovered country and the moods of roses, the poet appears in the parish, so to speak, of lost souls and indifference. Rather than a religious or ethical obsession, the poet’s mission is an aesthetic one. Instead of bringing words about a distant deity, he or she brings words of shadowed beauty, of evocation and suggestion, of quietly surreal significance.

 

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The poet also suffers from a fading condition — a gradual disappearance into his or her own world of language, of images and cadences. Just as a priest is a mimetic instantiation of Christ, the poet is an incarnation of some forgotten language god. Like our priest, the poet brings a form of spiritual information to presence.

 

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Poets are peculiar. In a way, both priests and poets are village idiots (Myshkins), who make a dubious impression on those given to more worldly pursuits. It’s hard to find an audience out there, among the materially distracted and those seduced by spectacle.

The priest is a mystical agent of foreshortening the world into Christology, with nothing left over. The poet is a mystical agent of re-imagining the world as a texture of symbols, with nothingness left active. Both priest and poet are also plagued with doubt — one of God, the other of self.

On the outside, the poet might appear rather solid and sociable, even garrulous. But on the inside, he or she is also a translucent being — a mirror interpenetrated by the ghost of time.

 

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Two poems by Dylan Thomas:

 

Especially When the October Wind

Especially when the October wind
With frosty fingers punishes my hair,
Caught by the crabbing sun I walk on fire
And cast a shadow crab upon the land,
By the sea’s side, hearing the noise of birds,
Hearing the raven cough in winter sticks,
My busy heart who shudders as she talks
Sheds the syllabic blood and drains her words.

Shut, too, in a tower of words, I mark
On the horizon walking like the trees
The wordy shapes of women, and the rows
Of the star-gestured children in the park.
Some let me make you of the vowelled beeches,
Some of the oaken voices, from the roots
Of many a thorny shire tell you notes,
Some let me make you of the water’s speeches.

Behind a pot of ferns the wagging clock
Tells me the hour’s word, the neural meaning
Flies on the shafted disk, declaims the morning
And tells the windy weather in the cock.
Some let me make you of the meadow’s signs;
The signal grass that tells me all I know
Breaks with the wormy winter through the eye.
Some let me tell you of the raven’s sins.

Especially when the October wind
(Some let me make you of autumnal spells,
The spider-tongued, and the loud hill of Wales)
With fists of turnips punishes the land,
Some let me make you of the heartless words.
The heart is drained that, spelling in the scurry
Of chemic blood, warned of the coming fury.
By the sea’s side hear the dark-vowelled birds.

 

I Fellowed Sleep

I fellowed sleep who kissed me in the brain,
Let fall the tear of time; the sleeper’s eye,
Shifting to light, turned on me like a moon.
So, planning-heeled, I flew along my man
And dropped on dreaming and the upward sky.

I fled the earth and, naked, climbed the weather,
Reaching a second ground far from the stars;
And there we wept I and a ghostly other,
My mothers-eyed, upon the tops of trees;
I fled that ground as lightly as a feather.

‘My fathers’ globe knocks on its nave and sings.’
‘This that we tread was, too, your father’s land.’
‘But this we tread bears the angelic gangs
Sweet are their fathered faces in their wings.’
‘These are but dreaming men. Breathe, and they fade.’

Faded my elbow ghost, the mothers-eyed,
As, blowing on the angels, I was lost
On that cloud coast to each grave-grabbing shade;
I blew the dreaming fellows to their bed
Where still they sleep unknowing of their ghost.

Then all the matter of the living air
Raised up a voice, and, climbing on the words,
I spelt my vision with a hand and hair,
How light the sleeping on this soily star,
How deep the waking in the worlded clouds.

There grows the hours’ ladder to the sun,
Each rung a love or losing to the last,
The inches monkeyed by the blood of man.
And old, mad man still climbing in his ghost,
My fathers’ ghost is climbing in the rain.

 

 

Posted by Tim Buck

 

 

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One thought on “of translucent priests and poets

  1. “Having gathered intuitions about the undiscovered country and the moods of roses, the poet appears in the parish, so to speak, of lost souls and indifference. Rather than a religious or ethical obsession, the poet’s mission is an aesthetic one. Instead of bringing words about a distant deity, he or she brings words of shadowed beauty, of evocation and suggestion, of quietly surreal significance.”

    Sung music is permeating this post, a dance of shadow and flicker, of mythos and self. And the poems of Dylan Thomas are as a chorus of frame drum-beats, throbbing misty panoramas of the layers of conscious and unconscious lives.

    Like

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